It’s a chilly Thursday night in October, one of the coldest nights of the season, but inside the Cousins Studio Theatre at the University of Richmond, everything is warm, bright and buzzing with activity. 

Despite the late hour, the end-of-the-week fatigue and the chill outside, the dancers assembled in the Modlin Center for the Arts brim with energy. It’s the night before the Celebration of Dance, and this final tech rehearsal is their last chance to work out any problems in their routines. 

Alicia Díaz, assistant professor of dance, is the event’s host, coordinating it alongside associate professor of theatre Dorothy Holland. Díaz has gathered the members of the dance team Embody in a circle before they begin their run-through. 

“The essence is to bring many people from different walks of life … to share an evening,” Díaz reminds the group, stressing that the showcase is not competitive. 

The team members move into their starting positions for the choreographed piece, laughing and dancing from offstage as the sound levels are tested. But once the music begins, their energy turns focused and serious as they practice their performance. 

It’s already well past 9 p.m., but it’s set to be a long night for everyone. Embody dancers are headed to practice after the tech rehearsal, and Díaz and Holland will be here until 11 p.m., working through the routines with some of the other six teams and performers that make up this year’s program.

But the product of these long hours and practices is an event that Díaz calls "celebratory" and "joyful."

The idea for Celebration of Dance was sparked in 2011 when members of the dance department became interested in creating an event that would draw different people into the department, not just dance majors, Díaz said. 

“It’s what we call a low-tech, high-visibility performance,” Diaz said. 

Designed to be inclusive, the annual performance is not adjudicated or vetted, she added. The program is open to anyone on campus who is interested in dance. Spots in the program are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, which allows student dancers and choreographers to have a performance outlet even if they aren’t dance majors. 

Each of the dance groups or performers gets space in the program for just one performance, during which they are welcome to choose their own outfits and music. Although each slot is only a few minutes, shorter than the time allotted in longer showcases, the celebration is widely attended, allowing the groups to show off in front of a large audience. 

The celebration is generally the first dance showcase of the school year. It’s also often the first time the dancers are in a professional dance environment, which is key to their development, Díaz said. 

“The idea is very celebratory,” Díaz said. “It’s not about competing with each other, but about sharing with each other ... It really feels like a space that is really inclusive.”

The event has become incredibly popular on the UR campus. As Díaz noted, the free event has always been packed, but 90 people had to be turned away last year, and 50 the previous year. Part of the reason for its popularity is that since so many people are involved in dance, many of their friends want to come out and support them, she said.

In addition to that, the success of each year’s performance adds to the draw, Díaz said.

“I think people feel good, and they want to come back,” she said. 

A diverse audience attends Celebration of Dance, Díaz said, reflecting the diversity of its performances. 

This year’s program included seven performances, from the Bollywood Jhatkas, Embody Dance Team, Afro-Caribbean Dance Team, Ritmo Latino, Block Crew, Ngoma African Dance Ensemble and an independent choreographer, sophomore Jessie Bonilla. The styles of dance presented ranged widely, from Indian fusion to hip-hop, belly dance and more. 

“I love the diversity of it all,” senior Free Henderson, president of Ngoma, said.

“Celebration of Dance is an amazing opportunity for the dance groups on campus to illustrate who they are,” Henderson said. “We are so fortunate to be able to come together in this space and share with the UR community.”

For the dancers who participate, the preparation for the performance can be intense. As Díaz explained, Ngoma is unique among the dance teams at UR because it is a dance company, paying a separate artistic director, Baba D, to come in and choreograph. 

Rehearsals begin around the second or third week of school, Henderson said, and Baba D immediately begins choreography for Ngoma’s Celebration of Dance piece. That leaves only about a month to recruit new members and get ready for the performance. 

Adding to the challenge is the fact that Ngoma uses live drums for its performances. In the week before the show, the company brings in its drummers to rehearse with the rhythm. 

“The last few practices leading up to the performance are intense and require all the energy we have,” Henderson said. “Because it's important that we practice how we perform, we work the hardest as the show approaches.”

Sometimes, the Ngoma dancers have to rehearse outside of their regular practice times during the week of the show, Henderson explained, particularly if the show falls immediately after a break, as it did this year with fall break. 

“Clearly, performing makes our lives very, very busy,” Henderson said. 

Despite how hectic and exhausting preparing for such a big event can be, for dancers such as Henderson, it can offer a sense of peace, too.

“When I perform and rehearse, I let go of everything that's wrong in my world and take time to enjoy the present,” Henderson said. She stressed that dancing was not an obligation or a job to her. Rather, it’s a way she can meditate and find community, all while exercising, she said. 

“I didn't realize it until recently, but when I'm not on campus or during Ngoma's off-season, I am most uneasy and anxious," Henderson said. "However, as soon as we start back up, I immediately experience relief and peace within myself."

Junior Fatema Al Darii echoed this sentiment about the powers of dance.

“You get this bit of a rush before performing," Al Darii said. "It’s just like, really relaxing, and it’s a lot of fun."

Al Darii, an international student from Oman, grew up watching Bollywood movies, which inspired her to join the Bollywood Jhatkas in the beginning of her sophomore year. She never had the opportunity to take part in dance teams such as this at school back home, Al Darii said, so college was her first time performing dance for an audience.

Besides Bollywood Jhatkas, Al Darii also dances for the Afro-Caribbean Dance Team, a group on campus that was founded this year. As Al Darii tells it, her martial arts club practice ended right before Afro-Caribbean’s practice began, in the same room, so she found herself staying behind and becoming a member.

As a member of two dance groups, Al Darii can speak to how different the dance teams can be. 

Afro-Caribbean has very “strict and clear” guidelines, so although anyone can join, they must be willing to commit to attending practice, Al Darii said, which demonstrates how the group’s leaders value the aesthetics of the performance and having smooth, clean presentation. 

With Bollywood Jhatkas, the structure is more flexible, Al Darii said, meaning that sometimes new dancers show up to practice two days before the performance, needing to learn the choreography.

“Some groups have more reputation of being selective than others,” Al Darii said. Groups such as Block Crew that require a lot of synchronization set a high standard for their members to reach, she said, which can require working hard at practice as well as on your own.

As for last year’s Celebration of Dance, Al Darii said she had really enjoyed the event. She recalled the rush she had gotten before performing for the first time.

“After we finished, me and a lot of people were saying we’d go back and do it again,” Al Darii said. 

She also noted how full the theater was during that 2017 performance. Al Darii said Celebration of Dance created a space where people who might be coming only to support their friends got a chance to be exposed to the other dance groups on campus. 

But for the dance teams and the audience, this year’s Celebration of Dance marked a bit of a departure from past performances. Because of how popular the event has been, this year’s celebration was separated into two performances, one at 7:30 p.m. and one at 9 p.m. on the day of the show, Friday Oct. 19. 

“I think it’s really great," Al Darii said of the decision to split the celebration into two performances. "I think it’s a really good idea.

“But I’m worried the word might not have spread as much because of SpiderBytes,” she added, referring to the discontinuation of the daily university email that was often used to remind students of upcoming events. 

Despite those concerns, the celebration was packed. Díaz said the 7:30 p.m. show was full. Before the 9 p.m. show, there was a long line of students standing, and even sitting on the floor outside the theater, waiting to get in, and by the time of the performance, that show had filled up, too.

As Díaz explained during the tech rehearsal, the members of each dance group got a set number of tickets reserved for their friends. If will call ticket-holders weren’t in their seats by five minutes before the performance, their spots were given away to the students waiting. 

At the final performance, the black box theater was packed with students, sitting in the chairs, on the floor and even trying to sit in the aisles. The crowd clapped and cheered for all the performances, as the dancers added in drumming, costume changes and grand bows. 

“Fortunately, my friends and supporters in the audience only saw my fun facial expressions and energy,” Henderson said. “They had no idea how freaked out I was inside my head!”

Overall, it seems Henderson’s energy sums up the exuberant mood that Celebration of Dance brings on every year. 

“Celebration is my favorite time of fall semester,” she said. “I have nothing negative to say about it.”  

Contact contributor Molly Brind'Amour at molly.brindamour@richmond.edu.